Road to the Final Four: No. 22 Butler Battles the Big Boys in 2009-2010

Jameson FlemingSenior Writer IOctober 5, 2009

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 19:  Matt Howard #54 of the Butler Bulldogs shoots against Storm Warren #24 of the Louisiana State University Tigers during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum on March 19, 2009 in Greensboro, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

There are reasons to be very optimistic, but also pessimistic, about Butler's upcoming season.

In the Bulldogs' case, being optimistic means cracking the top 10 and having a team capable of reaching at least the Elite Eight.

The pessimistic view is Brad Stevens' club borders on being a top 25 club and exits the NCAA Tournament in the first round for the second consecutive season.

Butler is rightfully optimistic because the Bulldogs return all five starters and every bench contributor from a 26-win team last season. Stevens has the league's two best players, and point guard Shelvin Mack could give the Bulldogs three players on the All-Horizon League team.

Butler's dynamic duo of Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard represents the Bulldogs' biggest strength, but hidden weakness as well. Hayward is one of the country's best wings and Howard is a stud power forward, but at 6'8" and 6'7" respectively, they are Butler's tallest significant contributors.

The Horizon League doesn't have a team this year that can likely stop the two of them, but when Butler plays much more athletic, larger teams, the Bulldogs could run into serious problems.

Last year, Butler ran into trouble against teams that had more length. Ohio State and LSU both took down Butler (in close games albeit). Cleveland State, who had the athleticism of a major conference program, but not necessarily the talent, gave Butler three tough games and knocked off the Bulldogs in Horizon League Tournament.

Against LSU in the NCAA Tournament, Howard excelled, scoring 24 of his team's 46 points when he was on the floor, but he struggled with foul trouble trying to defend a large Tigers team. Hayward played 39 minutes but only put up 10 shots and scored 12 points.

Butler has some reinforcements coming as two freshmen stand at least 6'9". Emerson Kampen is a redshirt freshman and likely won't see much playing time at first, as he's a frail 6'9", 190 pounds. But when Hayward gets in foul trouble, Kampen and fellow freshman Andrew Smith will provide Coach Stevens with two bodies to throw into the fire for a few minutes without getting absolutely torched.

Smith stands 6'10" and will definitely find time in the rotation. He's got a decent-sized body (240 pounds) that will give Butler an option to go big against a daunting lineup of big time schools in its non-conference slate.

Butler's last two non-conference schedules (especially last year) have been detrimentally weak for the Bulldogs. Stevens made the right decisions this year with the schedule. Butler will roll through the conference schedule so the Bulldogs can challenge themselves outside the league.

Unlike previous years, Butler doesn't need to pile on the wins to make the tournament. With Georgetown, Xavier, Ohio State, and a stacked lineup in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Butler just needs two or three wins in those games to show they'll be worthy of a top five seed in March.

Having so many games against teams that will be longer than Butler will also allow Stevens to learn what his team must do to beat those teams in March, because inevitably the teams Butler will face in the NCAA Tournament will likely be bigger than the Bulldogs.

The lack of experience against bigger teams helped lead to Butler's demise last season to LSU and in 2008 in the second round against Tennessee (Butler played fellow mid-major South Alabama in the first round).

The main reason to not be so optimistic in Indianapolis is there's a chance Butler just isn't that superior of a team. The Bulldogs return everyone from a team that only beat Xavier of the top teams they played and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler lost four Horizon League games, including two against inferior schools, and ranked only 61st in the country in offensive efficiency and 50th in defensive efficiency—not exactly gaudy numbers to say the least.

While the arguments against Butler are there, there is a reason the Bulldogs ranked 22nd in the Bleacher Report preseason poll and some writers ranked Butler in the top 15 and as high as 12th.

Take away the lack of size, and the starting lineup of wing Gordon Hayward, power forward Matt Howard, point guard Shelvin Mack, guard Ronald Norad, and guard/forward Will Veasley can challenge almost any team in America.

Veasley is a great all-around defender that serves as Stevens' glue-guy. Norad doesn't put up eye-popping numbers, but he's a nice complement to point guard Mack and could see an expanded role in his sophomore season.

Overall, Butler is a better team than last year and should win at least 26 games again despite the much, much harder schedule. An undefeated run through the Horizon League is certainly not out of the question as Butler should claim the league's regular season and tournament title.

The Bulldogs should return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007, which will make Brad Stevens the most successful coach in his first three years all-time.

Butler's 22nd-place ranking is a result of Bleacher Report's Preseason Poll voted on by 20 writers. Butler's ranking is not necessarily a representation of how the author ranked Butler.

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